I came to Act 1's production of French-Canadian playwright Michel Marc Bouchard's work, Lilies, with few preconceptions. I had not seen the film based on the script, and really all I knew of the story I learned from my interview with Matt Smith, the Nashville production's director.
On Smith's reading, the play attacks a very cliched question about the power of love from a novel angle: "Family love, romantic love, and the love between a saint and God are all put under the microscope, as the play explores whether love can transcend even death.” Never mind that the device for exploring this question centers around a tragic love triangle involving three boys in a Catholic school in the early 20th century! In short, this play is permeated to the core with themes that speak to the LGBT experience.
Framed as a play within a play (and occasionally to be even more confusing a play within a play within a play), Lilies could be described in some senses as a psychodrama. The play is staged in order to draw out feelings of guilt from a captive bishop (Bilodeau) in deep denial about his role in the drama's underlying tragedy, and staged by the very man (Simon) who was punished for the bishop's own crimes.
As we look into the past, we find Simon at the heart of the triangle. Simon and Vallier de Tilly have a secret love affair, but they are caught by a classmate, Bilodeau. But what Bilodeau himself, deeply religious, cannot admit is the nature of his own feelings for Simon. Bilodeau has sublimated his own desire for Simon into a reverence for a saint, and thus has converted his feelings for Simon into a desire to protect him from the hell to which love for Vallier will bring him. Simon himself is conflicted about his relationship with Vallier. Meanwhile Vallier's relationship with his mother, who has come quite unhinged, is one of deep devotion, but also one that is deeply troubling.
Each of the forms of love Smith discussed, then, seems to be explored at length in the play, and perhaps the question of whether love can transcend is addressed. What is far more striking, however, is the way the play plumbs the psychopathology of love in all these forms. Bilodeau's fervent devotion for and to God, taken as a substitute for his passion for Simon, drives him to heights of depravity that leave him, at one point in the play, screaming, "I WAS GOD!" Vallier's relationship with his mother, who intentially muddles reality to deal with her own pain, rivals that of Oedipus in it's dysfunction - though in a way a gay boy's might. And Simon? Well Simon's love for Vallier and his fear of what that will bring him nearly destroys a whole town.
What Lilies brings us face-to-face with through examining the boys' loves, then, is the consequences of pathological love - relationships constrained to the point of denial by social conventions, religion, and family pressure. Love marred by shame becomes fanatical (Bilodeau) or destructive (Simon). Vallier's mother, the countess, loves out of a fantasy land, and that cannot survive a first encounter with reality, and ultimately it is love as fantasy-opposed-to-reality that destroys both her and her son.
Act 1's production of "Lilies" well executes the play, drawing on the humor of the situations to lighten the mood when called for. Bradley Moore (Young Simon) and Daniel Devault (Vallier), for instance, are seen during the rehearsal of their school play about the death of Saint Sebastian. When on stage, their characters humorously exhibit the overacting one expects from sappy high school drama. And Doug Allen as the melodramatic priest Father Saint-Michel, who is in charge of drama at the school, leaves the audience in stitches.
Chuck Long (Countess de Tilly) and Michael Rex (Mademoiselle Lydie-Anne de Rozier) expertly execute two of the most complex parts in the play. The countess has lost touch with reality, which renders her character sometimes hilarious, sometimes embarrassing, and sometimes deeply sad. Long is able to execute these transitions in a moment and to good effect. Likewise, the character of de Rozier is a cynical and sometimes unsympathetic character, whose praise of lying is the height of humor. But her outburst on discovering that she has betrayed herself by falling in love and has been betrayed by her lover cuts to the bone.
Everything about the set and costumes of the play are simple and stark: nothing detracts from the main focus of the play as we follow maddening loves down a path of destruction. This is a play that leaves its audience alternately laughing and crying, and from which the audience will emerge wondering about the meaning of what has just happened to it.
Lilies' last two performances at The Darkhorse Theatre are Friday, November 14, and Saturday November 15, 2014. For more information or to purchased tickets, visit ACT 1’s website, act1online.com.